A message came through early yesterday morning that someone local had 5 chicks for sale. In order to get the Millie Fleur hatching eggs she wanted, she had to buy an “assortment” of breeds. Well, long story short, none of the Millie Fleur’s hatched and she really didn’t want the Old English Game Bantams that had hatched. Not being a true rescue situation, the message barely pinged my radar. That was until I saw that they were less than 2 days old. They were hatched the same day that Baybay’s cheepie peepies made their debut. The other thing that caught my attention was that 3 of them were self-blue colored. For anyone that follows my Backyard Poultry Magazine articles, you know that Suki (aka The Blue Pigeon) was a self blue. What you may not know is that my sweet little rescue hen Mia (and truly one of my favorites) was also a variation of that color. I have not seen many self-blues around, so nostalgia and “chicken math” got the better of me. I would make the 20 minute trip in the ensuing monsoon to get them. I thought Baybay wouldn’t notice a few extra faces.
She was asking $35 for the 5 little faces. She only wanted to recover the money she had spent and this wasn’t a for-profit transaction, which made me feel a little better about spending money on chickens, which I don’t normally do. Now I would usually have a little bit of cash on hand, but I had just scraped together everything I had to put a down payment on my framing order for my upcoming gallery show. I grabbed the $20 that I keep in a book for emergencies. I found a $5 in my purse and dug through everything on my desk until I came up with 8 $1 bills. Feeling a little ashamed of my situation, I went to the ceramic chicken canister that we accumulate change in and fished out 8 quarters. If ever I was going to feel like an addict, it was during this mad hunt for enough scraps to get my chicken fix.
Then I remembered, a box! I will need to find something to bring them home in. I made a circle through the house, but came up with nothing. I stood in the middle of the great room and said, “think! There must be something.” “Ah ha!” Sitting on the floor beside my desk was a Rex-Goliath wine box. The irony amused me, so I emptied out the bottles and put a clean soft towel in the bottom. Armed with my chicken “couture carrier” and my mattress money and pocket change, I grabbed my keys and got ready to head out. Justin was working from home, so I called down the stairs, “I’ve got to run out for a bit, I’ll be back in about an hour.”
His voice rang back up the stairs, “Going to get the chicks?”
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.
“I saw the email.” He called back.
Drat, I forgot he belonged to the same group… oh well… I called out, “I don’t know what you mean,” as I closed the door behind me. My escape was successful and no one was the wiser… yeah, right… stealthy I am not. My unsuccessful attempt to be surreptitious was only made worse by the fact that I got about ¾ of the way there before I realized that in my haste to escape scrutiny, I had forgotten the house number of where I was going. I heard my mother’s voice in my head, “What did we ever do before cell phones?” The conclusion was inescapable. I called Justin’s cell. When he answered, I explained my situation. As he laughed, I could hear him clomping up the wooden staircase to where my computer sat with the map still up on the screen. He read the address to me. Crisis averted…pride still basically in tact.
When I arrived at the house, she already had them in a box. She saw the same irony in my choice of carriers and we laughed about it. I paid her and apologized for the selection of currency. Although it obviously bothered me more than it did her. I pondered to myself, perhaps she had found herself in a similar situation, needing a chicken fix and desperately fishing under the upholstery for lost change…maybe not.
She handed me the little box. I gently pulled apart the flaps of the box, just far enough to peek in. Not so far as to let in a rush of the day’s cool damp air. The 5 tiny little creatures were huddled in the corner. They didn’t even look up at me. Not since baby Finch had I seen chicks so small. And to be fair, I’m not sure I have ever seen a chick as small as the little white one. I felt a swell of love fill my heart. I also felt my maternal instinct to protect and cuddle beginning to swell. So after a few minutes of chatting, I slipped their little box down inside my wine box, wrapped my arms around the whole package and ran through the torrent of rain to my car. I was drenched, but my precious cargo was safe.
Now for a quick aside… I’m not a big fan of incubators. They are essentially machines making babies that don’t have mommas. I will admit that in my experience, chicks that are incubator born and hand raised make better house pets. With that being said, they also usually aren’t as strong in the first few days to weeks of their lives. You see, chicks have an innate sense to run under something and stand up against it. They do this under the momma hen and it makes for stronger legs. Chicks born of Broody-bators, in my experience, also learn to eat more quickly and start to strengthen and grow at a quicker rate. The choice between incubator and broody-bator is a personal one and I am in no way making a judgment either way. I’m merely stating my preference based on personal experience. Unfortunately, the choice is not always a voluntary one. Especially in the case of specific precious eggs, a back up incubator for a broody that gets bored is never a bad idea to have on hand. Now for a brief pause as I step down off my soap box…
I know that introducing new chicks to a broody hen is not always easy. It is made more difficult if the hen already has chicks or if the add-ons are more than a day old. But, with that being said, Baybay is such a sweet and docile bird that I was sure that MY Baybay would not be an aggressor to these tiny lovable fuzz balls. Yeah, we can file that under the best laid plans…
Plan A: I arranged myself on the floor in front of the soft sided dog run that Baybay was using as a broody apartment. It has a zippered door making it as secure as possible. You know against all of the wiley predators inhabiting the jungle that is the suburban living room. Inside, she had a hooded cat bed lined with a piece of fuzzy polar fleece that she was using as a nest. Currently the best in luxury poultry accommodations at Hotel Rooster Hooch. I pulled the hooded cat bed to the front of the little nylon run. One by one I scooped the new littles out and tucked them under Baybay. She growled at each of them, but once they were all securely hidden in her feathered petticoat, she repositioned herself slightly and settled in.
While I love Baybay with all my heart, I don’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. Not that throwing her would do any good, she flies really well. My solution was to take Baybay, brood and entire nest and put it on the table beside my computer while I worked. It provided me not only the opportunity to watch her closely, but also presented me with entertainment and inspiration while I was writing. Not that I got much writing done.
A half hour went by and my cell phone began to cluck. Tim always calls when he is at lunch. It is a custom we started before we were even married and now more than 5 years later, it persisted. I swiped the screen and tapped the speaker button and began our conversation. Baybay watched curiously. She had heard papa’s voice coming from this strange box before, but it still intrigued her. Being a proud and concerned Grandpa, one of his first questions was, “How are the cheepie peepies?” I responded, “They are good, ALL the cheepie peepies are good.” He must not have caught the inflection in my voice because he simply said. “Aww, Good.” Baybay leaned forward slightly, stretched her neck out and peered down at the cell phone on the table. She looked up at me with a critical gaze down her beak. I hadn’t exactly been dishonest. It was an error of omission if anything. She glanced back down at the phone. I know the sentiment behind her actions. She was telling me in her clearest chicken sign language, “If you don’t tell him, I’m going to.” I genuinely considered calling her bluff, but my honest streak won out. I spilled the beans and laid my whole day out on the table. I tensed slightly and waited. “That’s good, Baybay will like more babies.” Huh? No lecture? Hmm, how odd. Was DH infected with the addiction? Time would tell.
After Lunchtime With Timmy, I thought it was time to see if the new babies would like something to eat. I was told that they had eaten for the first time just before I picked them up, so they would be okay for a while. Even though the new fluff balls were hatched the same day as Baybay’s own three, they were considerably smaller and much weaker. Baby chicks have a 48 hour supply of egg yolk in their abdomens, so they don’t NEED to eat for a couple days, but Baybay’s babies had started eating the day they were hatched. As soon as they were dry and could wobble on their own 2 feet, she taught them about crumbles. So now at 48 hours, they were much stronger and more active than the new arrivals. It seemed as though Baybay had accepted them easily, so getting her to feed them should also be simple, right? Well…
I placed the nest back in the dog run and lifted Baybay up an inch or so and gently shook her until all 8 little fluffies fell out into a pile. I set her down to the side and offered her food. She couldn’t have cared less about what was in my hands if it was a diamond tennis bracelet (after all, chickens don’t play tennis). She made a bee line for the new chicks and started throwing them around like lawn darts. CRAP!! I grabbed her and pulled her out of the run. She paced frantically at the mesh on the side. She clucked with her wings were spread wide in an attempt to look formidable, as formidable as a 12 ounce chicken could. I check the littles, they were all no worse for the wear. I tried to get them to eat, but they just didn’t understand. It made me wonder how much they could have eaten before I picked them up, so now I was worried. They were so tiny and really weren’t strong enough to walk yet, they needed a Momma. I let Baybay back in, but I held my hand near her and ran interference every time she got near one of the new chicks. She would growl and lunge at them, especially the little white one. Ironically the little black one looked so much like the ones she already had that despite it being half the size, she must have thought it was hers and never bothered it at all. This wasn’t a long term solution, my arm was getting tired. I really didn’t want to take all of the chicks away and put them in a brooder.
On to Plan B: I pulled Baybay back out. I took a skewer and poked at the food and tapped on the dish. It was enough to get our hatchlings to investigate. They already knew how to eat and weren’t hungry, but it piqued their interest to the point that they came over and pecked at the crumbles. That was sufficient to get the new littles to watch and try to imitate. It IS the sincerest form of flattery after all. They didn’t eat a lot, but when they had all had something, I placed Baybay back in the nest and forced her to sit. Steering one of her chicks under her was enough to trigger her instinct to sit. She still growled and reached for the new littles, but she was starting to settle. Once her chicks were under her, I again tucked the new littles under one by one until the run was quiet. This is where plan B kicks in. I got a dark fitted sheet and covered the whole run. Then I laid heavy bath towels over that. Essentially I turned the lights out. The babies all thought it was night time and didn’t stir; she couldn’t see them well enough to bother them. The theory is that if a broody hen has 24 hours in the dark with her new brood, when the lights are turned back on, she won’t remember or won’t care which ones were her and which ones were new.
There were 2 potential flaws to my plan. First, it was JUST a theory. I had never had this exact situation and every hen is different to some extent, so the actual outcome was anyone’s guess. The second was that the new littles needed food now. Once they start to eat, they need to continue. So it was decided that every 3 hours I would take Baybay out, get the littles to eat and repeat the process of reinserting them into her fluff and again darkening the whole run.
The first feeding time was a success. All of the littles ate some except, of course, for the little white one. She still hadn’t eaten more than a piece of crumble. While the others ate, she stood wobbling with her head hung down and her eyes closed. I kept waking her and trying to encourage her, but it wasn’t looking good. The second feeding time was a little better. Everyone ate, including little white, she ate a single piece of hardboiled egg. It was better than nothing. At the end of this feeding though, I had to secure them for the night. It would mean 7 hours without eating. I made it as dark as possible to avoid any injuries while I wasn’t there. I crossed my fingers (no, not literally) and went to bed.
I didn’t sleep much and 6a.m. came early. I rushed downstairs and pulled the covers off the run. Well, there were no bodies; that’s a good sign. This time I didn’t get Baybay up, I just tapped on the food dish with the skewer. One by one little faces popped out from the feathers. I wasn’t long until 6 of them were in the food dish eating, including little white! The two that had not gotten up for breakfast were her own hatchlings, so I really wasn’t worried. She still paid no mind to the black chick. The grey ones she looked at and tilted her head a little, but didn’t seem concerned by them. Unfortunately she was still aggressive to little white. So after everyone had eaten and they had all returned to the fluff except little white, I tucked her under Baybay’s wing and she snuggled in. And again, I darkened the whole run.
I got them up again a little before 9am. This time it was a completely different scene. Everyone ran out to eat. They pecked and twittered excitedly. They all looked strong! I was so relieved. Then, one of the little blue ones walked over in front of Baybay and looked up at her. She leaned her head down as if to say, “well hello little one, what can I do for you?” The chick reached up and chomped down on one of her waddles. Startled, she lifted and turned her head. The little chick went flying. I watched shocked as the little guy ran around in front of her again and looked up as if to say, “Momma, do it again!?” Apparently he thought it was great fun. Another one bounced and landed in the middle of her back and slid down her wing. Seeing this and thinking it must be a new sport, another one followed, then another. They would run in and out from her feathers, jump and flap their tiny wings. I watched all of this with a mixture of amazement and amusement. The new day had brought stronger happier chicks! I still worried for little white, but now instead of growling and reaching for her, Baybay was content to let little white walk up and nuzzle in her chest feathers. No aggression. Plan B had worked!
Now I had MY work cut out for me. It was on to the business of videoing all of the ensuing cuteness. We were going to need a lot of tape…